The Glorious Uselessness of the Pocket Square

Close-up of a pocket square
Image credit: Alexander Naglestad on Unsplash

There has been a lot of speculation in recent months about the post-pandemic future of clothing. As we slowly emerge from our homes to re-enter regular life, the question of exactly what we’ll be wearing when we all do so comes up time and again. In menswear circles, the longtime idée fixe that is the fate of the suit has been of particular concern, especially in the face of a perceived threat from elasticated waistbands and leisurewear. If I take stock of the things I’m personally excited to wear again, they skew heavily toward the former. I can’t wait to put on a suit and tie to go somewhere, anywhere.

So much of what we’ve worn over the last year and some has been defined by practicality. Whatever’s comfortable, easy, at hand. But the joy of the kind of clothing I find myself fantasising about is that it represents the opposite: it’s in no way practical and in every way superfluous. There’s no need to wear a suit, no use in putting on a tie. They are, to paraphrase what Oscar Wilde famously said about art, quite useless, and superbly so.

No item more perfectly embodies this glorious uselessness than the pocket square (apart, perhaps, from its bosom buddy, the necktie). It goes by a few different names — pocket square, dress handkerchief, pochette — but it’s had a singular function for well over a century: simply to decorate and, in doing so, to elevate.

It’s an ironic turn of events, really, that the lowliest, most workmanly of accessories — the handkerchief — would be stripped of its rather base function and rise to the status of the pochette, but such has been the case since the early twentieth century. The arrival of the lounge suit in the late 1800s brought with it tailored jackets with out-breast pockets intended to house reading glasses. It’s here that the decorative handkerchief set up shop (leading at one point to the sartorial curiosity that was the ‘speckerchief’, an eyeglass case disguised as the puff of a handkerchief). As the pocket square became a garment in its own right, it meant that men started carrying two handkerchiefs, one intended for its original purposes, the other rarely (if ever) leaving its breast pocket perch. ‘One-for-show, one-for-blow,’ as they say. 

Vintage man wearing a bowler hat and pockethandkerchief
Image credit: Powerhouse Museum / No known copyright restrictions

But while the pocket square proper has been with us for a hundred years or so, decorative cloths have added splashes of colour to human history for millennia. They’ve long served as markers of status, dating as far back as Ancient Egypt, where wealthy citizens carried linen handkerchiefs conspicuously died with red oxide powder. The orarium, a fabric square from Ancient Rome, was used to signal the start of gladiatorial games, with Emperor Aurelian giving spectators their own kerchiefs to wave in appreciation in AD 271. 

Dying processes advanced in the Middle Ages, but their costliness and the expense of fine fabric kept fancy hankies firmly in the hands of the wealthy. Courtly knights carried them to show that they had won a lady’s favour, while the more widespread use of perfumed handkerchiefs was to ward off bad odours when covering the nose. Royals like England’s Richard II and Louis XVI of France showed a particular fondness for fine decorative clothes and aristos at large duly followed their lead. Laced ones became especially popular in the seventeenth century, while embroidered cambric numbers were a hit among Regency dandies. 

Italy has even differentiated between the ‘show’ and ‘blow’ variety as far back as the Renaissance, with the former going by ‘fazzoletto’, while its humble counterpart is known as the ‘drapesello’. Fazzoletti were even used for subtle and elaborate communication in matters of love and lust. A hanky drawn across a lady’s cheek, for instance, communicated unspoken desire, while one drawn through the hand signalled only disgust. 

Close-up of a striped suit and white pocket square
Image credit: Malgo23 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, cotton, linen, and silk pocket squares that harmonize (but don’t precisely match) one’s tie are worn in innumerable different folds. These include the restrained glimmer of the ‘TV fold’, also known as the presidential, pesko, or square-end fold (picture Sean Connery’s Bond or Don Draper in Mad Men), all the way to the elaborate origami of the Cagney (named for James Cagney) or the devil-may-care exuberance of ‘the puff’.

Men in suits a Pitti Uomo
Image credit: Mariya Georgieva on Unsplash

When so much of menswear is characterised by restraint and conservatism, the pocket square, with its rolled edges, opulent fabric, and elaborate decorations, is among the rare unbounded flourishes men will allow themselves in their dress. If, however, you’re uncertain about wearing one, consider this parting thought from Bruce Boyer. He recalls working as a stylist under the renowned fashion photographer Slim Aarons, who he describes as being a stickler for detail:

‘He took me under his wing and explained many of the finer points of photography. One of his sternest bits of advice was to “always make sure the man has a handkerchief in his chest pocket. It’s funny, but if it’s not there, when people look at the photo, they’ll tell you there’s something missing even if they can’t put their finger on what it is.”’

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